NORTON, ZIMBABWE - Jabulani Zilawe lost all 11 of his children to AIDS. Now he is the only one left to care for their orphans.
"This has become my life — with my grandchildren. All their parents died. AIDS killed them. I had 11 children, six of them were girls who had moved to South Africa to seek better life, but they all came back dead — one after the other," Zilawe told the Thompson Reuters Foundation as he surveyed his small grandchildren scrambling around him.
Zilawe lives in a dilapidated homestead outside Norton, a town 40 kilometers from Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.
His bedroom is a thatched mud hut that sits near 12 mounds marking the remains of his wife and children.
"My sons, who became illegal gold miners, also suffered from AIDS before they died. You can see the graves here; the additional one belongs to my wife, who also died some two years ago, leaving me to look after our orphaned grandchildren," said Zilawe, 76.
Nearby, some of his grandchildren wrestled over a pot of leftover porridge. None is in school; instead, like their grandfather, each child passes the day at the homestead, idling and seeking a spot to bask in the sunshine.
Some of the little ones fall ill — regularly, said Zilawe, who didn't know whether any carried the virus that had killed their parents.
"I don't know anything about my grandchildren's HIV status; maybe they have the disease or maybe not," he said.
His life is tough. Yet many other Zimbabweans in Zilawe's age bracket are not just caregivers but are also coping with AIDS diagnoses of their own.
"It's sad. It's worrying when you look at the rate of HIV/AIDS amongst aged persons here. The percentage of elderly persons aged 60 years and above living with HIV is around 15.3 percent," said Marck Chikanza, national coordinator of the National Age Network of Zimbabwe (NANZ), an organization that caters to older people's needs.
NANZ said more than 115,000 older people are living with HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe, one in 10 of the 1.2 million Zimbaweans who the United Nations says are living with HIV/AIDS.
"There has been a decline in the rate of people living with HIV across all age groups except in the 50+ age group, where there has been a rise from 13.8 percent to around 14.3 percent," said Tadiwa Pfupa-Nyatanga of the NAC organization, which coordinates the government's response to HIV/AIDS.
According to 2016 official statistics, about 185,000 AIDS-orphaned Zimbabwean children are living under the guardianship of their grandparents — people like Zilawe, who struggle to cope.
"Most aged persons here hardly have the capacity to produce or buy food on their own. And most of the orphaned kids they look after are far too young to be working to produce food for their families. And the burden, at the end of the day, rests with the grandparents — who, in a true sense, are also dependents," Anatalia Mabeza, who chairs an HIV/AIDS support group in Norton, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation..
Some orphaned children say their grandparents offer little or no medical help for the health problems they inherited.
"I was openly told by my mother before she died that I was born with the HIV/AIDS condition, but now as I live with my grandmother, who is in her 60s, she has never bothered to monitor my condition," said Lillian Muranda, 14, who lives in Caledonia informal settlement, 25 kilometers east of Harare.
'I was bewitched'
"She tells me I was bewitched, but I'm always ill and absent from school most of the time," Muranda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As Muranda delved deeper into the bewitching story, her grandmother, Agnes Muranda, stepped in sharply to intervene: "Why do you bother her? You newsmen are very bad. You want to rule out witchcraft from my granddaughter's illness. Leave us."
Superstitious beliefs like this hinder government efforts to combat AIDS, and even if a grandparent has good information and plenty of intent, it doesn't mean that help will follow.
"We have no means to support our AIDS-orphaned grandchildren besides the treatment drugs they receive from government health care centers. What we can only do is to make sure they take their medication. Remember, we are also victims of a failing economy and there are also many amongst aged persons who are living with HIV," said Jonathan Mandaza, who chairs the Zimbabwe Older Persons' Organization.
As Zilawe sees it, he is shunned as an aging irrelevance yet is left to pick up the pieces of his children's lost lives.
"As older persons, we are not consulted on HIV and AIDS issues, yet there is also a strong misconception that sex matters don't concern us. As such, access points for condoms and other HIV/AIDS services only favor younger people, leaving us out," said Zilawe.